The Kandahar Marathon: Week Ten

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Ten

“Living gratefully begins with affirming the good and recognizing its sources. It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift, accompanied by an awareness that nothing can be taken for granted.”

~Robert Emmons

Monday morning I was sitting, well, if I’m to be entirely candid with you and I suppose that’s the precedent I’ve set here, for better or worse, so, well, I was sitting on the toilet, checking my email and groggily preparing my mind for the day ahead when in came a text message: Snow day. I had yet to look outside, but upon doing so immediately realized that between the drifting snow that was still falling and the wind that moved it horizontally, running on my usual trail wasn’t an option—not a good one at any rate, so I adjusted my plans and, after a shot of espresso and a glass of EmergenC and some added collagens, found my way onto the treadmill. I turned on a documentary about the wineries of Lebanon which, though almost constantly under fire, still produce some of the most amazing wines in the world. I remember a birthday dinner, several years ago, when a friend gifted me a bottle of Lebanese wine, Chateau Musar, 2002 vintage. What was happening in Lebanon in 2002? “When you uncork a bottle, you uncork conflict,” said someone in the documentary. That certainly made me think.

I ran five miles that morning (once I got off the toilet, of course), with a nagging twinge in my left knee the entire time. I slowed down, but the pain did not subside, and when five miles, the prescribed distance for this Monday from my marathon training plan, were finally up I felt relieved to sit myself upon the Peloton and finish my workout with a low-impact cool down and a protein shake. Knee pain scares the hell out of me, as it can be season-ending, even career-ending for distance runners, though I haven’t felt it in any serious way in a few years. I’ll hope it was a one-off until my body tells me otherwise.

Tuesday morning, I again woke before my five o’clock alarm. Frankly, I’m getting slightly sick of this waking up before my alarm practical joke that my aging body seems to be playing upon me, though it does allow me to fit better workouts in when it comes to core and lifting. I checked Yasso’s plan for the day. Six miles of hills. I checked the weather. Cold. Very cold. I laced up my blue Asics Gel Nimbus “Paris” editions, the ones I bought when I hoped to run the Paris Marathon back in 2020, and decided to see what I could do for a hill workout on the treadmill.

Sonja bought me the treadmill as a birthday present in April of 2020—not long before the marathon in Paris would have been held but some time after the world imploded upon itself, at a time when we weren’t even considering going to the gym, weren’t going anywhere we didn’t absolutely have to go, to be honest. It was a struggle to get it down the stairs and into the laundry room, but it was worth it. I locked onto an 8:30 pace and turned on SportsCenter. I spent the first two miles fluctuating between an incline of 1.0 and a decline of 1.0 every quarter mile, creating something akin to gently rolling hills. Then at mile three, I got a wild hair and went a bit nuts. At 2.0 miles I was on a flat deck. Then at 2.05, I moved the incline up to .5. At 2.1 I moved the incline to 1.0. At 2.15, the incline became, at my insistence, 1.5. I continued this for an entire mile, until at 2.95 I was running an inline of 9.5 which is, well, frankly sort of ludicrous. I had no idea the treadmill was capable of tilting like that; I was leaning forward dramatically to run up this incredible if fake and stationary hill, and my steps became stomps, pounding so hard on the treadmill in sync with my driving arms that I feared I might wake the two still-sleeping members of my family. When I got to the “top” of this nasty, plastic hill, I rewarded myself by running back down it, dropping the incline quickly to -2.0 for a moment, before increasing to -1.0, and then back to flat. At 3.5 miles, I again began increasing the incline .5 for every .05 of a mile again, until at 3.75 I was at an incline of 2.5, and then I worked back down to flat by 4.0. I ran mile five at a consistent incline of 1.5, steady the entire time, still at an 8:30 pace, and then ran mile six, a cool down, at the same pace but on a flat treadmill. The workout was intense, and my recovery on the Peloton took longer than usual, but I felt accomplished and strong and am admittedly really looking forward to my next hill workout.

I think quite a lot about what a luxury running is. While I believe strongly that we were “born to run” as a species, I know that some are born without the use of their legs, with weak hearts, or other ailments that prevent running. Others lose the use of their legs, develop diseases or chronic and unmanageable pain. Members of my own family have the same disease I do, but so much worse than I do that they could never run.  Still others live in places like Kandahar or Kabul, where a sport like running is intolerable to those in charge, and thus verboten. I think about the powerful men and women I watch competing in the big races, the Eliud Kipchoges, the Molly Seidels—what if they were born in Afghanistan? What if they were born without legs? What if they got in an accident? What if I did? I think the great distance runner Steve Prefontaine said it best, speaking perhaps to all runners then, now, and in the future: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” “Pre” as he was called died in a car accident at the age of twenty-four.

Wednesday morning I half-slept until my alarm, though I was once again already in the throes of waking when it sounded off. When I sleep well, it seems, all is right with the world, and when not the reverse is equally true. My daughter must have awoken as I did. We met in the hallway and had a long, silent hug before heading downstairs. Yasso’s training plan called for four easy miles, and honestly I didn’t feel up for much more than that, so four is what I did.

Wednesday night Sonja and I had a date, our first in a while. Our season tickets to the Broadway shows that come to Omaha are usually Saturday night, but with a vacation looming I moved them to Wednesday for Mean Girls. One of my students arrived to watch the kids around six o’clock, so Sonja and I went to Taste of India, a wonderful little “hole-in-the-wall” sort of place a few blocks from our house that has about five tables with plastic checkerboard tablecloths on them and really lovely food. We enjoyed the show, but it kept us out later than we prefer to be on a Wednesday, and Thursday morning my alarm hit me like a bus. My plan had me putting in six miles at race pace, and I plodded along with SportsCenter on in the background. A recurring theme in basketball these days seems to be that punching people will have only minor consequences—so long as you appear contrite. Off hand, I can think of few greater indicators of a devolving society than the wholesale acceptance of violence. I ended my six miles right as commentators were going to provide me with a play-by-play of the Lakers overtime meltdown to the lowly Houston Rockets. I was glad to turn the television off as I climbed onto the Peloton to cool down.

Before school began, I took a few moments and registered for “Race for Ukraine”—a virtual event, benefiting the World Central Kitchen and I texted TJ, who is running with me the next day, and casually mentioned that instead of our usual routine I’d like to meet at 4:30 and run 13.1 miles. Friday is supposed to be my day off, but I knew I’d spend much of Saturday on airplanes, and most likely wind up watching the sunset from a beach in the Caribbean. It’s hard to guarantee that I’d be able to fit a run in, especially with a 5:30AM flight, so getting the distance in Friday, rather than a rest, seemed like the sensible thing to do. Never mind the fact that it was projected to be near single digit temperatures Friday morning. I’m getting used to running in the cold.

Right as I finished registering for the virtual run, an email came through informing me that I’d received a $500 donation to support the Refugee Empowerment Center. I logged on and gawked; that’s more than I brough in in the entire month of February. The perpetrator of this generosity was an old friend I’d met through my wife. His wife was the maid of honor, and he an usher, in our wedding. Nine years later, we don’t see nearly enough of them, but he seems to pop up in my life when I need him most. He texted shortly thereafter. “Keep going. I just wanted to give you a boost.”  He certainly did that, and for a moment I was overwhelmed with gratitude, which is one of my very favorite ways to feel.

Later in the morning, I responded to an email from the New York Road Runners, and attempted to join the lottery for the New York City Marathon. However, with registration just having opened in the last day, the web page was overwhelmed and kept kicking me out. I tried again on my lunch break, noting at that time that TJ was yet to text me back about my ambitious plans for tomorrow’s run, but again the web page wasn’t working properly. I would have to wait to register for the New York lottery. As an aside: if anyone has an “in” for that race, please let me know. It’s one of my biggest dreams to run it, and this year would be the perfect time.

My seniors concluded their units on Afghanistan on Friday with a Socratic Seminar. Near the end of my second period, I interrupted a spirited debate to let them know how much I appreciate them. “You’re seventeen-year-olds with strong feelings about American foreign policy. Everything the outside world believes about you is, frankly, wrong. You give me hope, and I want to thank you for that.”  The bell rang, sending them off to their next classes, and leaving me feeling as if maybe, just maybe, I’m doing something right.

TJ texted back late that afternoon, and politely made it clear I’d be running solo. No problem. I love running with people, but most of my career has been spent on long solo expeditions, and I genuinely enjoy getting lost in my own blissful reveries while plodding along the path of life. I woke up to my alarm (rather than prior to it) at 4:30, and downed a double shot of espresso and some EmergenC before Zooey showed up in the doorway to the downstairs bathroom. My little girl wakes up so early; I keep asking her mom to bump her bedtime back, but on that point she won’t budge. I relished a long hug, tucked her in on the couch with some Muppet Babies on the television, then pulled the mask down over my face, put on my second pair of gloves, and struck out into the cold morning air.

I felt amazing as I drifted along the sidewalks, around the park, down to the path, and out into the trees. It was dark, and frigid, but I moved steadily and felt strong, as if I were tracking a quarry, as if I belonged there, a powerful apex predator dining hungrily upon miles and only casually concerned with the world around him, lost in thought and time. I find the dark peaceful, and it limits the distractions that can take away from the thoughts that I play and replay over and over again in my head. I used to write speeches while I ran, but now I mostly write poetry or snippets of books I’m working on. Sometimes I forget them, so if I feel they’re genuinely of value I sometimes pull out my phone and dictate a quick note in the form of a text message to myself. It distracts from the otherwise steady momentum of a run, so I do this as little as possible, but it’s nice to have a record in those rare moments that I turn a phrase in just the right way.

I didn’t look at my Garmin for a long while. When I did, I saw that I’d run 7.9 miles already. I also saw that it was by then nearly six o’clock, and I worried I didn’t have time to finish the half marathon I’d set out to complete. I picked up the pace. I thought for a while about Afghanistan, and about Ukraine, as this virtual run was a benefit for the latter nation while every mile I run this year is to benefit the former. Both are places you can’t run, or rather, where you run only when you have to, at least at the moment. I thought about how incredibly privileged I am to live in a place where I can run for recreation, to live a life in which I can burn calories for sport, never in the least bit concerned about whether or not they can be replaced, whether or not they’ll be needed later. I picked up the pace still more. In the last several miles of my run, I felt myself overwhelmed by gratitude for a second consecutive day. I am grateful to be able to do the things I do.  Grateful for my health, for my legs, for my love of this crazy sport. I want to help create a world in which other people can do these things as I do, or better, do the things they would prefer. I finished my run at 6:45, not long before the time I normally leave the house for school. I had run just over fourteen miles.

I got to school later than usual, but my lessons were planned and I was ready to go. First period, my students gave cultural presentations on Bosnia in anticipation of our study of the Siege of Sarajevo and the genocide at Srebrenica. In my senior classes, I provided them with an article from Al Jazeera (which I heard one student explain to another is “not a guy’s name, bruh,” which made me chuckle) and we engaged in a final Socratic Seminar over Afghanistan, drawing from the two books each student had by then read and all of the articles and short documentaries we had been tapping into all semester. As usual, my students were brilliant, engaged, interested. At one point, one student posed the simple question: “Has this study opened anyone else’s eyes to the world?” in response to which a chorus of emphatic “definitely” and “yes” responses accompanied by subsequent examples warmed me to my core. Developing a global worldview isn’t something that can be tested on multiple-guess assessments such as those that the College Board and similar organizations that make millions on the false and scurrilous assertion that they can somehow quantify the human intellect, yet I would contend that it is the single most important thing that I strive to do and, if I may be so immodest, I’m pretty good at doing it. Yet another thing in my life to be grateful for: my students.

At lunch Friday I tried again to enter the lottery to run the New York City Marathon. This time I was successful. But having successfully acquired a lottery ticket, of course, is not the same thing as winning the lottery. Still, as all of those addicted to gambling seem wont to remind us, you can’t win if you don’t play.  

Saturday morning, the alarm went off at a time that was too early even for me, and my groggy wife and I joined our friends Tylr and Sabrina, who had arrived the night before, in our living room before driving to the airport for the first flight to Miami. It had briefly crossed my mind to attempt to wake up even earlier and get a few miles in, but the fourteen from the day before coupled with two consecutive nights of not getting enough sleep were enough to assuage my ever-increasing desire to cover more miles. I’ll get a run in on the treadmill at the resort tomorrow, I told myself.

It is the desire to run, much more so than the ability, that I have been developing all these years, and which has at long last made itself a part of me. Most people have the ability to run, an ability for which I have expressed my gratitude both in writing and by remaining faithful to the sport. Most people, however, choose not to run. When we call the sport “popular,” we are acknowledging that since the 1960’s and 70’s, when running as a sport began to really take off and recreational running was embraced by more and more people, we are pointing out that tens of millions of people regularly jog or else show up to races ranging from their neighborhood 5K to the Boston Marathon, running casually, chasing a PR, or even competing for prize money. Those tens of millions, however, those legions, are a small percentage of humanity. Even if the running community in the United States were thirty million strong, that would account for less than ten percent of us. Why?

I have given this a lot of thought. I haven’t always been a dedicated runner, as anyone who reads my writing now knows. How did I become one? I think part of it is being around the sport. The athletes who run for the teams that I am so fortunate to be allowed to coach remind me of the joys of running. My further immersion into the sport through reading books by runners—serious runners like Deana Kastor and Lopepe Lomong, as well as recreational runners who have a story to tell, people like Chris McDougall and Peter Sagal, have inspired me, made me think more about the sport and what we do. Then there are the benefits. Some are obvious. For a forty-year-old man who loves little more than the pairing of medium-rare steak and Napa Cabernet, the ability to offset my diet with exercise, presumably prolonging my life, making it easier to walk up flights of stairs, and keeping pesky pounds off of my “dad bod” while at the same time helping to manage my high cholesterol and genetic predisposition to heart disease are all very desirable outcomes, and quite worthy of the time investment even if I didn’t enjoy it—though of course I do, immensely.  

That’s far from the only health benefit of running, however. What running does for my body pales in comparison to what it does for my mind. As recently as a few months ago, I was lost in my head, despondent and depressed. I was dissatisfied at my job, with my family—with my life. To some extent, this is predictable, part of an annual cycle that inspires me each January to question my lifelong decision to live in Nebraska, which is notoriously cold and dark in the winter months. While I would credit therapy and my supportive family to a large extent with the fact that I feel infinitely better today than I did two months ago, I cannot fail to acknowledge what running has contributed to the healing process. When running was an erratic, every-other-day part of my life, the benefits were there, but less profound. Now that I run daily, run religiously, I look forward to it every morning. It is a purpose—though not the only one—inspiring me to rise from bed in the morning. It makes me feel good. When I finished those fourteen miles on Friday morning, it’s no exaggeration to say that I was high. I went to school grinning, insufferably chipper. I offered enthusiastic greetings to all, and spoke optimistically about the day. I had boundless energy, counterintuitive though that is. I was happy—happy about having run, yes, but also happier in general than I would have been if I had not. Running is not the only form of therapy in which I engage, but it may possibly be the most profound.

A final reason for running, I think, and something I have always loved and appreciated about the sport, is the community. We often speak of “the running community” as if it is so unified and bonded that we all know one another, all proudly carry membership cards, all attend regular meetings, and to some extent this is actually true. We know our heroes: Elioud, Deana, Mollie, Meb, Bart, and so many others, and some of us are even known by some of them, as being a famous runner is similar to being a famous winemaker or a famous author (you still go largely unrecognized in the line at the grocery store). As for our membership cards, there are our trademark shoes, of many differing brands yet each unmistakable to the serious runner, as well as the swag we pick up at races, the jackets and hats which we casually wear around (as I write this, I realize I’m wearing an “OmaHalf” tee shirt on the airplane).  And the meetings? Well those are the races, of course, and we get used to seeing one another at the start line, the finish line, and all along the course. This running community is as real and as established as any community in the world, a fraternity of zealots who love nothing more than the endorphins we earn by pounding the pavement, besting our previous course PR’s, pushing one another, and crossing the finish line to audible cheers. And the longer I am a part of this amazing community, the more grateful I am to have discovered it.

Gratitude. What a thing it is. What a transformative, life-altering thing. At a resort in the Caribbean, I ran five miles Sunday morning on a treadmill, sipping bottle water with Napoli v. Hellas Verona on ESPN Deportes on the television mounted on the wall in front of me. After a sweet header, Napoli was up 1-0 early. As an English teacher and lover of Romeo & Juliet I felt compelled to cheer for Verona, though I wasn’t invested in the game. Instead, I was invested in the idea of being thankful for what I have, thankful to live in this beautiful world, and thankful to be able to run around it. I’m also thankful to be able to raise some money to help resettle Afghan refugees in the United States by running the Kandahar Marathon this year, and thankful to all those who support me, either by donating, by running, or even just by reading this blog post. Thank you for joining me for the Kandahar Marathon.